Elk champion takes last look at well-trodden habitat

Elkhunter

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Elk champion takes last look at well-trodden habitat
National Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith retires after 22 years of exhaustive research.

By Rebecca Huntington

Driving across a bumpy road on the National Elk Refuge, Bruce Smith surveyed the 25,000-acre winter haven for elk, and in recent years, bison, for one of the last times.

He pulled his truck to the side of the road, hopped out, strode across a field littered with elk droppings, and pointed to a plant that barely crested the toe of his boot. The woody plant, which blended with the grass due to its unnaturally short stature, was a willow.

Smith knows from poring over historic photos that the nipped-off plant once belonged to a tall stand of willows that spanned the refuge. But years of overgrazing by thousands of elk and now bison have destroyed willows across the refuge. Cottonwoods and aspen also have taken a beating.

After overseeing the refuge's winter feeding program for 22 years, Smith has concluded that wildlife habitat can not be dispensed in the form of an alfalfa pellet. As Smith, 55, retired April 2, he made a parting plea to quit overgrazing the range for the sake of wildlife.

"It's our responsibility as stewards to not put animals at risk," Smith said.

In western Wyoming, elk populations are kept artificially high by winter feeding programs that dole out hay and alfalfa pellets for elk because their native winter ranges have been taken over by subdivisions, ranches, resorts and other developments. But maintaining more elk than the existing habitat can support puts animals at risk, Smith said.

For one, putting too many animals on too little land degrades the habitat, which supports fewer animals as it declines, he said. Secondly, artificially concentrating animals on feed grounds, such as the Refuge, in winter, aids the spread of diseases, compromising the herd's health, he said.

Though feed grounds are popular, Smith has long warned of the drawbacks during his tenure.

Smith also assisted local citizens in pursuing a ban on wildlife feeding on private lands, which took effect this winter.

Smith's constant warnings about the downsides of feeding have put him on the hot seat. Some citizens complained to his bosses when he supported the ban on private feeding.

But Smith's supporters say he has been a tireless champion for wildlife. Moreover, Smith's research on how the Jackson elk herd migrates and how elk calves die has assisted wildlife managers in fine-tuning hunting seasons to protect the integrity of the herd.

At a retirement banquet March 26 at Snow King, many of the region's wildlife experts and advocates and public lands managers filled the Teton Room to celebrate Smith's contributions to the valley and wish him good-bye.

Elk Refuge Manager Barry Reiswig called Smith "one of the best professionals I've ever worked with bar none."

Reiswig also lauded Smith for "his unwavering concern about the way the refuge is managed." The refuge is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar study that looks at the program of doling out tons of alfalfa pellets for as many as 7,500 elk each winter and whether that should continue. A draft is due out next winter.

At the banquet, Grand Teton National Park wildlife biologist Steve Cain said Smith's "steadfast, unfailing, and intensely dedicated approach to his profession has benefited wildlife in this valley more than many of you, other residents, or visitors to the valley will ever know."

Cain also teased that "for a guy with relatively small feet, it is doubtful that the shoes you leave behind will ever be truly filled."

When Smith first arrived on the refuge in 1982, one of his first tasks was to write a job description. The refuge had no on-site biologist at the time.

Smith picked up an elk telemetry study that had been started in the 1970s to see whether feeding elk alfalfa pellets would be a good substitute for hay ­ a controversy that still lingers. The refuge used to raise hay on Mormon Row in Grand Teton, but park officials wanted that to end.

After concluding that elk survived just fine on pellets, Smith continued to follow the radio-collared elk to see where they spent their summers. Smith discovered that elk summer in four areas: Grand Teton, the Teton Wilderness, southern Yellowstone National Park and the Gros Ventre drainage. His research showed that elk are faithful to those summer ranges, which prompted wildlife managers to adjust hunting seasons to ensure that any one of those segments was not overhunted, which could leave a summer range without elk.

Smith also worked with former Elk Refuge Manager John Wilbrecht on research that ultimately lead to winter range closures on forest slopes east of the refuge between Cache Creek and the Gros Ventre. That closure continues to protect big game today from disturbances ranging from skiers to snowmobilers to wildlife photographers, he said.

While working at the refuge, Smith continued his studies and eventually earned a doctorate degree from the University of Wyoming. Out of that work grew a research project that looked at the survival rates of elk calves.

From 1990 to 1992, Smith radio-collared and followed 153 elk calves to learn how they die. Only 15 percent of those calves died within the first few months of birth, a high survival rate compared to other herds, he said. Black bears proved the primary source of mortality. Smith continued to monitor the calves as they grew up and the data proved helpful in evaluating the success of hunting seasons.

Smith repeated his elk calf mortality study in the mid 1990s with another 145 radio-collared calves. This time, he discovered that the mortality rate had increased to 28 percent, up from the low 15 percent.

Although black bears remained the number one cause, other predators, such as grizzly bears, played a more significant role. Also accidents and disease killed more calves than in the previous study, he said.

Poor weather conditions may have made the calves more vulnerable to predators, accidents and disease, Smith said. The study documented lower production of milk in mothers and slower growth rates among calves as a result.

Tracking elk calf deaths meant being on call 24 hours a day to recover a carcass as soon as a radio-collar gave out a mortality signal. In one case, Smith rode 34 miles roundtrip on horseback in a day to recover the carcass of a calf killed by a grizzly in Yellowstone. Smith had to beat scavengers to the scene to determine cause of death.

Smith's studies were conducted before wolves moved into the area. Another study should be done to document what impacts wolves are having, he said.

"As long as the controversy continues about the effect of wolves, I think it's very valid and important to address those questions in an objective and quantitative way," he said.

Smith said he wanted to do the study but found little support among the agencies or the public.

At the same time Smith has been tracking elk, he has been tracking their impacts on habitat on the refuge. Smith has just finished writing a book on how elk and bison grazing has altered plants on the refuge over the past century. The book is due out by summer.

During his informal survey last month of the refuge's beleaguered willows, Smith pointed out a shrubby cinquefoil, a plant that elk and bison normally won't graze, that was mowed to the ground.

The only shrubs, willows, cottonwoods and aspen not hammered are those plants protected by fences inside experimental exclosure designed to keep animals out.

For Smith, the condition of the woody plants outside the fences, is evidence the winter range is being stocked beyond its carrying capacity. Too many elk and bison ­ their numbers artificially inflated by the winter feeding program ­ is damaging the habitat that other species, including songbirds and fish, depend on for survival. Moreover, a degraded habitat is less able to support elk and bison, he said.

Most other western states do not feed big game herds to maintain more animals than the habitat can sustain, he said.

Smith predicted: "Someday, elk and deer populations in western Wyoming will be managed based upon the capacity of the available habitat to support them, rather than upon numbers of animals that people want despite damage they cause to habitats and risks to the sustainability of the animals themselves."


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Ithaca 37

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"Smith predicted: "Someday, elk and deer populations in western Wyoming will be managed based upon the capacity of the available habitat to support them, rather than upon numbers of animals that people want despite damage they cause to habitats and risks to the sustainability of the animals themselves.""

That's exactly why we have to make sure there's plenty of good habitat. Every new road, ATV trail, mine, housing development, clearcut, etc. destroys habitat. It's time for hunters to wake up and realize that.
 

TheTone

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They can send there excess elk up here. I don't think anyone would complain.
 

Rogue 6

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Logging actually increases the health and numbers in the herds. Nothing pisses me off more than a four hour hike in the dark into a roadless, no motorized vehicle closer and some fat ahole drives up in his camo quad the size of a small pick up. But shutting down lands to any use result in fires like the Sour Biscuit fire in the Southern Oregon's Kaliopis Wilderness, Now that is a waste. All that happened there was alot of jobs went up in smoke. Be careful who you are allied with, the enviromentalist movement is packed full of people wanting to bain all hunting and any use of public land. Not to mention full gun control and manditory land use laws, which would move all of us into apartment complexes in cities. If you think I overreacting your wrong I live in Oregon.
 

ELKCHSR

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LMAO Rogue!!!!
There are a few on the board that will acuse you of just crawling out of a bunker with that kind of talk...
Until they actually get to see what you are talking about, they are the ones with their heads burried in the sand not wanting to see the hand writing on the walls of what these people are actually capable of...And it takes more than just a visit along the I-5 cooridore to understand what is actually taking place in the quiet recesses of our Government offices in these places along the left coast.... ;)
 

1_pointer

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Fire is not a waste. It works similar to logging, yet doesn't remove all the nutrients that are needed in the soil. There's a place for both.
 

Ithaca 37

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Rogue, What do you think should be done about the new logging roads that are built for the timber harvests? And what do you think should be done about deteriorating water quality downhil from new roads and logging operations?
 

Washington Hunter

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Rogue, you've got a lot to learn. From the sounds of it, you get all your knowledge of what fires do from the news on tv.

shutting down lands to any use result in fires like the Sour Biscuit fire in the Southern Oregon's Kaliopis Wilderness
This statement is totally bogus. The first thing you need to understand is that fire is a necessary and a good thing. As a hunter, I'm surprised you don't know that. I'm sure even Elkchsr realizes that fires are good for wildlife. "Shutting down lands" does not cause fires. Fires are NATURAL and needed for healthy wildlife habitat. Like 1 pointer said, logging and fires are similar in what they do. So how can you say logging is good for wildlife but fire isn't? Sounds to me like you're a logger and it just pisses you off when trees burn up.
 

BuzzH

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If I lived in Oregon...

I'd be hunting the biscuit fire the next 10 or so years for blacktails...it will be outstanding hunting.

In fact, I'd guess my first blacktail will be shot within the perimeter of the biscuit fire...
 

Oak

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In western Wyoming, elk populations are kept artificially high by winter feeding programs that dole out hay and alfalfa pellets for elk because their native winter ranges have been taken over by subdivisions, ranches, resorts and other developments. But maintaining more elk than the existing habitat can support puts animals at risk, Smith said.

For one, putting too many animals on too little land degrades the habitat, which supports fewer animals as it declines, he said. Secondly, artificially concentrating animals on feed grounds, such as the Refuge, in winter, aids the spread of diseases, compromising the herd's health, he said.
Personally, I think feeding should stop yesterday . As long as the elk are being sustained at artificially high levels, people are going to see little reason to worry about the real issue, which is loss and degradation of habitat . It won't be pretty to see, but if we stop feeding and get a hard winter, and folks have elk dying on their back porch, they might open their eyes to the issue.

Oak
 

ELKCHSR

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Yes, both fire and logging are extremely important to our economy and the ecology of natural systems. The waste comes in when (and I am not a proponent of taking it all) some of the valuable wood resources are sitting right there to be used into our economy and they are let sit long enough to let the bugs ruin it. People complain about logging live trees, and here is a resource that is let go just to appease some. I think both thinning out the largest stuff right away for market and the rest, which there is really a lot of is left for the forces of Mother Earth to consume. There is enough for both if the process is watched by some. And yes, I fully agree with Buzz that the deer hunting in these areas gets to be fantastic. I remember walking thru these burns during elk season in Washington and seeing countless deer.
 

Washington Hunter

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Oak, good point. It's kind of like the salmon issue. The last few years we've been having record high runs of salmon in the Columbia River. What many people don't realize is these salmon are raised in hatcheries, and are NOT wild salmon. It's hard for people to support putting money into saving and restoring salmon habitat when they read in the newspapers about these record numbers of salmon. In my opinion, artificially maintaining high populations of salmon, or elk, should only be a temporary situation, there should not be the expectation that it will go on forever. We have the same problem here in Washington with our elk herds. Feeding elk in the winter has been going on for so many years there is no way they can ever stop doing it, especially now that most of the winter range is converted to residential areas, orchards, and farms. It's a real shame that feeding elk ever got started in the first place.
 

Rogue 6

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The Sour Biscuit fire burned so hot and wide spread that the majority of the timber could not be harvested quick enough. And even little bit that was approved to be removed got tied up in court anyway and is being WASTED. Inside the wilderness area that doesn't matter because timber can not legally be removed anyway and is also wasted, except for its valuable nutrients-yippy. If you want fire, then stop fighting any fires and let them burn naturally. If your going to fight fires then let logging happen to off set. Yes burned areas are good hunting, I spent all weekend hunting in a huge canyon that burned in 1987. Logging areas are good hunting also. The real difference is the logged areas would provide income for the communities and individual that used to make livings in the timber industry. Now some hippy trash named "nature weasle" can sit in a tree and think he's saving the planet because he shut down a mill.
 

Rogue 6

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Washington Hunter,
No I'm not at all in the timber industry. When I was a kid growing up almost everyone was attached to timber one way or another. I went to Southern Oregon University in Ashland Oregon. It is one of the biggest state sponsed hippy communes in the country. I have been endoctrinated my entire life by "enviromentalist" and actual tree spiking, grill gaurd chaining, tree sitting "eco-warriors". When have you ever seen a pro timber industry documentery on TV. They don't exist. This is about wasting resourses for the ideal of happy squirrels. Or worst yet shutting down the economy to create government dependent welfare voters.
 

1_pointer

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The yippee for those nutrients can be important as many conifer forests are on nutrient poor soil anyway. Logging has a place and is needed, but fire is better, IMO, for the long-term health of the whole system.
 

Rogue 6

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1 Pointer,
The "whole system" in the rocky mountains, is a completely different system than areas that harvest the majority of timber in North America. If any of you ever want to hunt SW Oregon, give me a little notice and I get you into some "ecosystem". A burn left to itself is worthless to hunting after 20 years or so. I understand the "diversity of the ecosystem is more complete" crap. The managed areas have more game over a longer period of time hands down, while providing raw material for industry which maintains a strong economy. The eco-freak movement only destroys economies with long term goals like complete gun control, manditory veganism and force living spaces.
 

BuzzH

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I must have missed the part in the NFMA that states: "The FS and Federal Government must provide raw materials for local economies".

Where did you find that Rougue????????
 

ELKCHSR

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Biggest problem with that Tony, is the fact that way to much growth has occured now and to "Just let it burn" hits the eco system to hard and will by no means be a freindly occurance...The biggest hurdle of all in this whole thing is the balance that must be met. There are people on both sides of the fence that think it should go only one way or another to fit their particular agenda. It just doen't work that way. There are to many people in the equation now and that in itself is the biggest thing to address... (That just isn't those living in the urban interface)
 
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